Jul 27, 2011

Review: Al Capone Does My Shirts

This book is amazing.  Choldenko's book won the Newbery Honor in 2005, and though I haven't read the winner from that year, Kira-Kira, I want to say that this "Tale from Alcatraz" deserved the win.  Not that the win actually determines the worth of a novel.

Al Capone Does My Shirts is set in the Depression era, when everyone was dazzled by criminal antics.  The Flannagan family has moved to Alcatraz as a result of the father's new guard/electrician position\y.  Obviously, the job was hard to come by and it becomes necessary for the family to adjust to life on an island full of the most dangerous criminals in the country.

Al Capone Does My Shirts
There is so much more to this story.  When I first picked it up, I thought it would just be a simple comedic story.  I mean, the title makes it seem like it's just silly.  The story starts off with a hilarious scheme to sell students in San Francisco the opportunity to have their shirts washed by Al Capone.  But the novel quickly becomes so much more.  Moose, the protagonist of the novel, has an autistic sister, Natalie, in a time where the usual treatment was institutionalization.  Throughout the novel, he goes to great lengths to protect her from their surroundings and from herself. 

The ending is wonderful.  I can't get over how much I loved the ending to this novel.  It reminds me so much of Richard Peck's A Long Way From Chicago, another work of historical fiction set in the Depression with a great ending.  The strong characterization is similar to Peck's award-winner as well.  The family is well-defined and the relationship between brother and sister is incredibly moving as the story progresses.  So why the use of Alcatraz as a setting for this novel about living with and attempting to hide an autistic sister?  Symbolism!  Moose is trapped from his previous life and Natalie is often imprisoned inside herself, just as the convicts are locked away in the actual prison.  Kids will eat this stuff up once they figure that out.  At least, the dorks like me who love symbolism will. 

So this novel can clearly be used in the classroom or the library for its historical and psychological elements.  It's a great discussion starter and can lead to further interest in works of historical fiction or even nonfiction accounts of the Depression.  I'd say this book is best for pre-teens (tweens) and young teens.  But honestly, it's a great novel and definitely worth picking up regardless of age. 


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